(Editors note: Confidentiality in our practice is of utmost importance. The story and illustration below is a combination of truth and fiction from the many marriages I have had the honor of working with over the past 14 years. Any names, details, or identifying information has been changed and is told for illustrative purposes)
Philip and Tracey walked into my office, sat down, and immediately launched into the fight they had on their way in for marriage therapy. She wanted to arrive 5 minutes early, he was ok arriving on the hour. What followed was a pretty normal fight for a lot of couples: She mad at him for being “late,” he mad at her for being “uptight.”
After some back and forth dialogue between them (not very productive), I stop them.
“What’s happening here?”
This is a question I often ask couples. It’s a question to take a step back and look at their fight with curiosity and some objectivity.
“She’s mad at me for being inconsiderate to her need to be early, but I still can’t figure out why she always gets her feathers ruffled when we’re just a mere 30 seconds late,” Philip responds with the main dish of defensiveness with a side of passive aggressiveness.
On the heels of his words, she quips, “it’s because I’m responsible and value other people’s time enough to arrive early and not offend people.”
“Ohh, I’m irresponsible huh? What about those checks you bounced last week, or locking your keys in the car yesterday,” he responds.
I stop them again. They’ve taken the first step towards the indelible spiral downward into the game of cops and robbers — who’s the good one, and who’s the bad one. It’s a never ending game because it’s asking people who are emotionally triggered to stop themselves and objectively look at their own stuff. Stopping this spiral doesn’t happen naturally, it takes work. You can’t heal a wound that continues to get injured over and over and over again (intentionally or not).
I look at Philip and Tracey, and made a suggestion. “Philip, when I asked you two to take a look at what’s happening in the relationship, you had a great insight. If I remember correctly you said that she was mad at your inconsideration to being early to your appointment. Is that right?”
I interrupt him again. In a scenario with a couple like this, nothing helpful ever comes after the word ‘but.’
I continue, “what I am curious about is where you felt the need to shift the conversation from the issue of time to the issue of responsibility?”
“She’s the one bringing that up. I’m just making sure both sides of the story are being told.”
Sensing that he’d unintentionally opened up a window into his emotions, I wondered aloud. “I understand what you’re saying, and I’m also wondering what you were feeling when she made the statement about her being the responsible one. Something must have happened for you to need to shift blame to her. Any ideas?”
During every marriage counseling session there comes a moment of truth for one or both spouses. They are faced with revealing something about themselves that prior to the session they weren’t willing to share or perhaps they didn’t know about it. In this instance, Philip was just made aware that he was feeling attacked and labeled as “irresponsible” and out of an impaired emotional state, responded in like to his wife. He shifted the blame because he felt blamed.
In Science, we learn about kinetic energy. The rule is that for every action, there is an equal or greater reaction. This not only happens in the physical world, but the emotional world as well.
In the early days of relationships, emotions are flooded with infatuation and drunken love. It’s an intoxicating feeling that not only makes your stomach twirl, but has a way of numbing ourselves to negative interactions with our fellow twitterpated companion. Only after the infatuation stage do we begin to uncover and discover the reality that being this close to someone can hurt.
After Philip pondered my question about what he might be feeling about being attacked by Tracey he said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I wasn’t feeling anything.”
Feeling left out of the conversation, the more verbose and extrovert one of the two, Tracey looked at me and said, “See what I have to deal with? He refuses to talk, to open up, and communicate about what he’s feeling.”
If her statement had happened at home, the two of them would have engaged the fight with guns-a-blazing. Fighting would have been a lost cause. Thankfully, they were in a safe environment and were able to process what was happening.
I turned towards Tracey and asked her to consider rephrasing her statement about Philip’s difficulty to talk, explaining that he is unable to hear her needs when she’s highlighting his faults and failures. She told me she didn’t know what I was talking about and that if he’d just talk more, she wouldn’t get upset.
To help them see what I was asking from them, I grabbed a book from the shelf and set it on the table.
“Let’s consider that this table is your relationship. Every day you both put things on the table, take them off, and replace them with different things. A lot of times each of you put something on the table that is disguised. Think of it like this book,” I continued.
In the back of my mind, I realized something. In my own relationships, I often fail to understand the other person because what’s being said (placed on the table) is not forthcoming. Realizing that this is a natural fault of humans, I knew that this is what was happening with Philip and Tracey.
I picked the book up and said, “When you offer something to the other person that is not true to the content inside, it’s impossible to know you.”
“Tracey, it must be really difficult for you to so desire relationship with Philip that when he responds with ‘I don’t know’ it completely undoes you. Now, before you respond, I want you to consider this book. This book has a cover, and content. Can you share with Philip about the content as in what is happening inside of you when he says ‘I don’t know.’ Her response surprised me.
“I guess it makes me afraid,” she said.
“Afraid of what?” I asked.
“Afraid that this is as good as it’s going to get. That this is the way our relationship is going to be, and that I’ll be alone in my needs.” She was barely able to speak the last part about being alone, as her tears began to flow.
I gave her the book to hold.
“Tracey, what you’ve just spoken is truth about your experience in the relationship. Now, I want you to offer this as a gift to the relationship. This book represents your fears about being alone. Can you offer this gift to Philip?”
Turning to Philip, I asked him to consider how he’d like to respond to Tracey’s gift. “Consider that this gift is not an attack towards you, that she’s illuminating something about her self and her story that in the past has been placed on the table but not opened. I suspect that in the past, you’ve been blamed for her fears and her loneliness which has created a equal reaction of emotions in you.”
“Can you turn towards Tracey, and tell her what’s happening with you?”
At this point, Tracey has softened. Her shoulders are relaxed, her arms are not folded, and the sniffles and occasional tear drop suggest she’s present very differently than just 5 minutes prior.
Philip takes a glance at Tracey, and says “I can’t.”
“Is it that you cannot, or that you will not,” I asked.
“I guess, I won’t.”
Knowing that his refusal to share would likely be heard by her as a normal and dooming response, I continued to press him towards getting to the root of why he refused to share with her. “Thanks for being honest. What’s happening with you that you don’t want to share with her?”
His momentary silence suggests he’s really considering the question, he finally speaks up, “Okay, it’s like this. When I tell her how I’m feeling or what’s going on with me, she doesn’t listen.” Putting my hand up to pause Tracey from responding, I asked Philip, “She doesn’t listen?”
“Well, I don’t think so. At least to me it doesn’t feel like she’s listening.”
“And what would you want her to hear?” I asked.
“That I very much want to support her and for her to not be alone, but I don’t know how to do it.” He pauses for a moment, and continues, “I feel like she thinks me not knowing is used as an excuse, but I really don’t know what I’m doing.”
Knowing that our session is about to end because we’re out of time, I get another book off the shelf and hand it to Philip. “I want you both to consider these books as precious and valuable gifts. They are you. The words on the inside of these books are descriptors, adjectives, verbs, and nouns that all come together to form you. There are stories from childhood, high school, college, and early adulthood. There are even stories that happened before you were born. All of these stories are living and breathing with each step you take in life.”
I continued on telling them that they bring these stories, just like you and I do, to the relationship table. When we put these stories on the table and package them as ammunition, walls or shields, or not even on the table at all, we are not offering gifts. The goal of a lasting relationship is to uncover, together, how our stories have impacted our lives. The great, and at the same time, miserable, thing about it all is our spouse triggers emotions from our story.
It’s great if we know how to navigate those triggers, conversely it’s miserable if we don’t. These stories can be marvelous gifts to our marriage if we view them as gifts. Most often, the one preventing us from receiving a gift is not the giver, it’s the receiver. It is way easier to give a gift to someone in need than to be the one in need. Every marriage happens because two people have needs.
A relationship cannot exist without needs. These needs can be viewed as implications of your failures, or as invitations about needs of the other. Which will you see them as?